Journalists, columnists, publicists in the era of Harlot Politics
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2006-12-17
Some people can't tell the difference between news and an opinion piece. Even worse, news consumers find it very hard to discern which opinion pieces are 'propaganda' materials from half truths or outright lies spun by publicists.

In principle, news exposes and investigative reports are supposed to be written by professional journalists whose work involves verifying factual accuracy and context and providing a balanced perspective "without fear or favor" - to borrow the words of publisher Adolph Ochs when he acquired the New York Times in 1896.

Unfortunately, news exposes are also the favorite fare of tabloids and a demolition devise against enemy reputations used by the publicity-hungry politicos and publicists. Because columns have more leeway to lambaste and chastise one's enemies, vested interest groups and publicists will always look for the best columnist money can buy.

It is easy to peddle lies and half truths in the press because ours is a copy cat democracy which was meant to keep colonial masters in virtual control. Now, the next generation ruling elite is in charge - they comprise the oligarchs and their political lackeys who are incidentally challenged by a growing nouveau riche that forms a showbiztocracy (a term I coined during the 2004 elections).

While the original democracies of the US and UK continue to keep the rule of the people and basic freedoms alive, our copy cat democracy pretends to have freedom of expression, even if this means freedom to destroy and plunder on reputations of adversaries with reckless impunity.

I have a special name for our unique brand of politics ? Harlot Politics. It is the politics of trade offs and sell-outs, whether it is a cause or a personal pledge that is bartered for political gain.

While others like Senator Dick Gordon refer to the current style of politics in the Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo era as Transactional Politics, I think that Harlot Politics is a more apt term. Transactional Politics would suggest professional standard, acceptability and fair trade - something our present brand of politics is not.

When a regime produced by EDSA People Power mutates into the very anti-thesis of values that People Power stands for, you have Harlot Politics at work. EDSA People Power is all about press freedom yet what do we get under the Arroyo regime? Murdered journalists and media men slapped incessantly with libel charges have become the hallmarks of the truth-phobic Arroyo regime.

Citizens of the more functional democracies like the US and UK regard journalism as a public trust. The story of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) exemplifies the public trust nature of news organizations. Although state-owned, the BBC is not state-controlled. The BBC earns from license fees paid by citizens. The BBC and the British citizens are fighting hard to maintain the independence of the institution.

Like the BBC, news organizations must be free from public pressure and it is important for them to have strong and effective procedures for self-regulation. Inquirer's sanction on Vic Agustin is an example of self-regulation at work. It is up to publishers and management of news organizations to make sure that it preserves the credibility and integrity of its own newspaper.

I know a lot of people who would rather not react to an unfair and erroneous news report about themselves or their company than face the probable ire of journalists or editors. You can't really blame them because there are many instances when such corrections to the news are relegated to the obit section or some other obscure page. But this attitude reinforces wayward journalism. In the end, these information pimps (harlot pens) and their willing pawns help create a press institution that destroys, rather than promotes democracy and its freedoms.

Indeed, journalists have a critical role in upholding the structures and processes of democracy. That is why any journalist using his or her profession for personal gain or narcissistic gratification can be worse than corrupt public officials. This is because media people of this ilk provide the culture medium for evil to thrive.

Today's media must resist becoming an unwitting tool to dirty tricks and machinations of the high and mighty. Very glaring examples are talk show programs aired on the government network Channel 4. It does not take a smart person to wonder why all the phoned in questions are praises and alleluias for the present regime and its projects. Considering that it is people's money that operates Channel 4, we should all be aghast over the way we are all being taken for fools.

Press freedom can also be challenged by the need of newspapers to generate advertising. A big advertiser can always threaten to pull out if it feels it has been unfairly treated. When a big advertiser is unfairly treated, it gets a good rejoinder on a prominent page. But will this same access be easily available to non-advertisers? This is where the individual journalist must come in, making sure those who have less access to the newspaper are appropriately heard and covered.

Journalists therefore must remain impartial and conscious of providing perspective to the news, making sure that journalism is an appendage of democracy, rather than a prostitute for its destruction.

Like journalists, columnists have a responsibility to the public. But unlike journalists, columnists take a position on issues and their insights help provide readers a thorough discussion of a given perspective on issues that are not normally obtained from straight news. But taking a position should only be in the context of public service, rather than an opportunity for gain, such as when one obliges publicists who are there to purposely mislead and misinform for shady reasons.

Of course there is nothing wrong with journalists writing columns and columnists writing as a journalist as long as this does not involve conflict of interest. To quote the very guru of journalism ethics Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times: "You can f- an elephant as long as you don't cover the circus."

There is clear conflict of interest when a journalist uses his space to accommodate a publicist's agenda. The same is true for columnists who use their space to do PR (Public Relations) work thereby becoming the publicist themselves. In other words, the journalist or columnist who doubles as a publicist becomes a pimp for the system that nourishes Harlot Politics.

By doubling as a publicist, a journalist or a columnist casts aside his (or her) integrity as a critical purveyor of truth and information that serves to enlighten and empower citizens to act according to what is best for themselves and the nation.

The high and mighty and their lackeys have to learn to respect the press and journalists as catalysts for democratic reform. But first, it is important for the press to be conscious and aware of the big responsibility that comes with their profession.

To complete the picture, readers, as news consumers, should also take some time to get involved in making Philippine media a genuine public trust that they deserve.

  Previous Columns:

It had to happen on The Ides of March and Holy Week

Suggested guidelines for liability- free Internet posts

Election lawyer: PCOS critics should put up or shut up

All Excited by Pope Francis

A great disservice to P-Noy

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